Congress wants to know how the Federal Aviation Administration plans to handle a lot of drone-related issues, and one of them is the FAA’s BVLOS plans — that is, how the regulator intends to address safety concerns around drones flying well beyond the operator’s line of sight (BVLOS stands for Beyond Visual Line of Sight).
Congress December passed its end of year government Fiscal Year 2021 funding legislation, H.R. 133, Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, on Dec. 21, 2020. The document, written by the House and Senate bi-partisan Appropriations Committees, says that the FAA has until early spring to share its plans for allowing BVLOS drone operations, including how it intends to handle issues like collision avoidance and flight planning.
Here’s a snippet of the actual text:
The FAA shall report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations within 90 days of enactment of this Act on how it plans to address a number of complex safety concerns prior to allowing for BVLOS operations, including safe distance separation, right-of-way, reliability standards for sensors, and the associated data sources and data fidelity for flight planning, terrain avoidance, object avoidance, collision avoidance, and how current onboard detect and avoid technology manufacturers and users are addressing these challenges.
A number of big players in the drone industry, ranging from detect and avoid module maker Iris Automation to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) say the text is a welcome addition to furthering the safe use of drones in the U.S., adding that Congress is sending a clear signal about the importance of full BVLOS drone integration.
“Technologies such as onboard detect and avoid show great promise for enhancing UAS safety in the national airspace system without the need for additional equipment on manned aircraft,” AOPA and the Helicopter Association International (HAI) said in a prepared, joint statement. “We look forward to the FAA’s review of how certain capabilities may be effectively utilized to meet a regulatory framework for UAS operations.”
And that’s especially good news for drone companies like Iris Automation that are working to develop BVLOS-related technology. Iris Automation is the company beyond Casia, a computer vision-based UAV detect-and-avoid system comprised of both hardware and software, where industrial cameras provide full situational awareness to sense and detect obstacles and other aircraft.
Other drone companies that are likely to benefit from the rise of BVLOS tech include:
- Flight planning software makers, such as AirMap, Altitude Angel, Drone Deploy and Kittyhawk.
- Detect and avoid technology manufacturers, such as General Atomics Aeronautical (GA-ASI) and Xwing.
And investors are catching on that this could be a growth area in 2021. Iris Automation closed $13 million in Series B venture capital financing in December 2020.
Congress’s call also signals interest in programs like the FAA’s BEYOND program which launched in October 2020 as a way to use private-industry testing and data to help better understand drones. Private companies, including Iris Automation, partner with public agencies, such as the Kansas Department of Transportation, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the City of Reno, Nevada. Together, they’ll study various aspects of drones with a focus on BVLOS. The FAA has said those areas include: collecting data to develop performance-based standards, collecting and addressing community feedback and understanding the societal and community benefits, and studying how it can streamline the approval processes for UAS integration.
While the methods of going about regulation have been controversial (such as the recent final rule on Remote ID), most in the drone industry have agreed that uniform regulatory standards in some capacity are necessary to allow the drone industry to grow, whether that means conducting package deliveries, infrastructure inspections mapping and mining, or search and rescue missions.
What’s next for Congress’s Fiscal Year 2021 funding legislation?
The language included in this legislation was signed by President Donald Trump on Dec 27, 2020, and thus was enacted. Now, the FAA has up to 90 days from Dec. 27 to report back to Congress on its plans for advancing regulatory standards.